Doorstop Interview: “Conservatives for an Australian Head of State” Address

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Address to The Age Vision 21 Millenium Series
October 28, 1999

Doorstop Interview: “Conservatives for an Australian Head of State” Address

Transcript No. 99/77

The Hon Peter Costello MP

“Conservatives for an Australian

Head of State” Address

4 Treasury Pl, Melbourne
10.00 am
Wednesday, 27 October 1999

SUBJECT: Republic


Thank you very much Andrew. And to those of you who have come today we appreciate

very much your support. I want to just explain why Ill be supporting the

“Yes” vote in the referendum which is on Saturday week and how

I came to this position. I dont think I thought much about our Head of

State, or about the monarchy, or indeed about republics before the Constitutional

Convention. And as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, for the

first time I had to – in a considered way – think of my position in relation

to these issues. I guess like most Liberals before that, up until that Constitutional

Convention, I had seen the republic debate as a political distraction. Something

which if it had been raised by Mr Keating must have been a bad idea and

worthy of opposition. And I think there are many Liberals who still think

that way today.

But when I went to the Constitutional Convention and I had to think about

my own views about monarchies and our Constitution, I thought carefully

and I came to the conclusion that monarchy was not a symbol for Australia.

It was not a concept for me and it was not a symbol for Australia. I didnt

have difficulties with our Queen. I didnt have difficulties with our particular

kind of monarchy. But my view was, that monarchy generally was not a symbol

for an egalitarian nation like Australia.

And the truth of the matter is, I dont believe positions should be settled

on bloodlines. I dont believe that people should hold public office because

of hereditary. I believe unashamedly in people being rewarded for effort,

and talent, and creativity. As I said at the Constitutional Convention,

the temper of the times is democratic and in a democratic society you will

not convince people that an institution which works on non-democratic lines

is an institution whose symbolism will represent the nation. And there are

people who say today, what benefit would this country get from having a

President elected by the people, or indeed a President appointed by the

Parliament? And the first benefit that I would say is, we would get a symbolic

presence which echoes the values of our society and the values that I hold

dearly – merit, work, integrity – rather than the values that are enshrined

in monarchy. People say, what other benefits would we get? Well, the second

thing we would get is we would have a ceremonial Head of State able to perform

ceremonial functions.

The Prime Minister in his position which is set out in the paper today –

and I want to congratulate him, I think he has elevated the debate absolutely

with a well-reasoned piece in the papers this morning – makes the important

point, that in our system of government we have separated the ceremonial

position from the political position. And he says, rightly, the ceremonial

position of Head of State must be above politics, able to unite the society

as a whole. And the traditional defence of monarchy is that it is above

politics, able to unite society as a whole. But in our society monarchy

doesnt unite. In our society we have difficulty allowing the Monarch to

perform those ceremonial functions because something gnaws at its credibility

and its believability in our society. And the proof is in the pudding. If

this were a unifying symbol, above politics, able to perform the ceremonial

role, the Monarch would be performing the ceremonial role in Sydney – our

Olympics, our Head of State, our Queen. But we know, dont we, that something

is wrong? Something jars. It didnt jar in 1956 when Prince Philip performed

the opening of the Melbourne Olympics. In our society in that time it was

a unifying concept, but it isnt today. And to say, that because we have

a problem we will somehow define away the symbol of Head of State, rather

than fix the problem – with a ceremonial Head of State who can perform ceremonial

functions – is really just to close our eyes to what is a problem. A problem

that we know deep down will only be addressed if we can move through this

constitutional change.

And the other argument thats put of course is, if its not broken dont

fix it. And I for one would say in a machinery sense, our parliamentary

system works and works well. But I would argue that the ceremonial function

is broken. Is broken. And if there wasnt a genuine or general public belief

to that effect, we wouldnt be going through these arguments. I was in London

recently and I spoke to a Conservative Member of the House of Lords who

said to me – as a great monarchist he said – “I am a great monarchist

but if I were an Australian I dont think I would care to have my Head of

State living in London SW1.” And I thought about that. Its a problem,

isnt it? And because we know its a problem, we know that it needs fixing.

Now its a respectable argument to say, something is working well dont

interfere with it. Its an argument that could have been used against Federation.

Responsible Government had been working in Australia for 50 years, why threaten

it with Federation? Its an argument that could have been used for continuing

English Governors General. With the exception of Isaac Isaacs, up until

1947 the tradition of an English Governor-General had led to political stability.

It wasnt broken, why fix it? Its an argument that couldve been used against

abolishing appeals to the Privy Council. Appeals to the Privy Council were

working up until the 60s. They werent broken, why fix it? Its an argument

that couldve been used in relation to the National Anthem. It wasnt broken,

dont fix it. Its an argument that was used against me and the Government,

mindlessly, over the wholesale sales tax – if it aint broke, dont fix

it. But we know as we look back over the long sweep of Australian history

that by modernising and renewing these institutions and these symbols, we

gave ourselves opportunities for the future which otherwise would have been

denied to us. And I think thats what a “Yes” vote can do.

I want to make one point about “No” voters who are arguing for

radical change. A directly elected presidency, in my view, will open the

way to money politics in a way that we havent yet seen in our country.

We have seen in the United States – its sometimes held up as a model for

direct elections – Elizabeth Dole has just retired from the race because

shes only been able to raise $1 million against another challenger whos

now got $56 million. You dont even get into that race until you have tens

of millions. You don’t get the right to run.

And then people say, well, we could always ban money or ban political parties

from direct elections. The last time, as I recall, that the Commonwealth

Parliament decided to ban political advertising for elections it was struck

down as unconstitutional. But the direct electionists ought to tell us if

it’s their plan, not only to have a direct election but to ban parties or

money, how they’re going to get that through the current constitution. They

ought to explain that very clearly to us. In fact the direct electionists

ought to do us the decency of producing their model. It’s the one thing

that they studiously refrain from doing, is actually producing a model with

codified powers rebalancing the Senate and the House of Representatives,

announcing the electoral system, indicating how the ban on political parties

or money would work, how that would square with the Constitution and giving

us a real look at what’s being held out as a promise down the track.

And I make this prediction now. That the moment they start working on such

a model, the differences between them will be so great that if it ever got

to the electorate half of the direct electionists would still be saying,

vote “No” to the proposal for another one further down the track.

And it’s the classic position where people may be able to agree on what

they are against but not able to agree on what they are for.

I want to make one other point. Conservatives believe that institutions

which are important to preserve should from time to time be reformed and

renewed. Times change. To conserve the best you must make sure that it is

apposite to the times. And look at the parliamentary history of the Westminster

system. The true conservatives were those that were prepared to reshape

and remake their institutions to preserve them.

And I said at the opening of this debate, that if it was important to preserve

the parliamentary system we ought to preserve the parliamentary system with

a modernised arrangement for a Head of State, rather than try and hold on

to an out-of-date Head of State which could undermine confidence in the

Parliamentary system. I made it entirely clear, I thought the important

institution here was not the monarchy but the parliamentary system. And

as this debate has worn on, in order to preserve something with which we

now have difficulty, a monarchy, I have seen an increasing tendency to undermine

the parliamentary system.

In order to oppose the “Yes” vote some campaigners are now prepared

to bring into disrepute the whole parliamentary system. The ads that you

can’t trust politicians don’t just apply in relation to the Head of State.

They undermine the whole parliamentary system. And if one were to look at

this “No” booklet signed off by politicians on how you can’t trust

politicians one wonders whether or not they’ll be putting that out on their

election brochures at the next election.

The Constitution which the “No” case is pledged to support is

the parliamentary system. And there is no point in the name of defending

the Constitution undermining the parliamentary system which it enshrines.

Undermining the parliamentary system which it enshrines. True conservatives

would be defending that parliamentary system and modernising the symbol

in a way which will give it security and enable it to preserve the best

for the future.

And I have no trouble at all in saying, that a conservative can with an

absolute clear conscience, go into a ballot box to preserve the best of

our current constitution and to modernise it in the way in which we have

seen the sweep of history modernise institutions over the last 100 years.

I think that when conservatives come to look at this and look back on it,

they will see this was an opportunity to preserve the best of the past and

modernise for the future. An opportunity which may not come again. To give

us the opportunity to keep the institutions which really are important while

modernising those which are not of the same significance. And I would say

to conservatives on Saturday week that a ‘yes’ vote can be done with a clear

conscience. There are people that will say, hold out until you get every

dot and every line. The same argument could have been run at Federation.

The federal document is full of political compromises as the Federation

fathers worked towards the big issues by getting agreement in relation to

the machinery.

There’s no skin off anybody’s nose in saying, that a Constitution involves

compromises. It does. Our current one involves compromises. You wouldn’t

have got Federation without it. This idea that once you put a Constitution

in place it assumes holy writ, you know, and is perfect in every respect.

Constitutions are always framed in this particular manner. And a Constitution

which will give us a parliamentary system which is important, an Australian

as our Head of State, which is important, a ceremonial presence to perform

ceremonial duties, which will give us modern symbolism for the future is

in my view something well worth saying “Yes” to on Saturday week.